Sunday, June 24, 2012

Beach Day Picnic

Sometimes all that good karma and positive energy that you've been putting out into the world finally works its way back to you, allowing things to fall perfectly into place.  Wednesday was one of these days.  A last minute shift change gave me the day off, and as I was updating my little day planner I realized that it was the official first day of summer.  The next morning, I was watching the news as I drank my breakfast smoothie (I believe it was blackberry, blueberry, dark cherry), and Al Roker informed me that on Wednesday temperatures would be reaching into the upper 90s, real summer weather.  It was then that it dawned on me - maybe it was with a little help from the karmic muses - beach day.  The universe was sending me a message, and that message was to grab a blanket, slather myself in sunscreen, and do nothing but lay in the warm rays all day.  And that's exactly what I did.
But who wants to spend a day at the beach all by their lonesome?  So, I convinced my best friend Brynn to come along with me (though she didn't really need that much convincing).  We got to the shore, applied copious amounts of sunscreen, almost died in the surf, got a bloody nose (well, at least me), and were laying, sunning on the blanket all before 11:00 AM.  We spent most of the day supine, flipping from back to stomach to assure even sun exposure, with short breaks to cool off in the water and partake in the picnic lunch we packed.  Brynn made an awesome bean salad -  red, white, and black beans, chickpeas, a couple spoon-fulls of pico de gallo, and a splash of apple cider vinegar.  It was hearty an filling, but light and fresh which was beach-day-picnic appropriate.  I made a fruit salad with watermelon, grapes, berries, and crenshaw melon - a sweet and incredibly juicy member of the cantaloupe family.  When I make fruit salads, I like to finish them off with the zest and juice of a lime.  There's something about the tang and tartness of the citrus that intensifies the sweetness of the fruits.  If you're making the salad the night before, the lime not only keeps the fruit fresh, but it also creates this lovely juice that keeps the whole thing moist and allows the flavors to melt together wonderfully.  The cold, juicy, sweet and tangy fruit was a great way to cool down when the sun got a little too hot.  I also packed up some seaweed salad I got from Wegman's because 1) I am currently obsessed with this surprisingly sweet and satisfyingly crunchy snack, and 2) it's possibly the most perfect beach food, I mean, what's better than eating seaweed salad while sitting in the sand staring at the sea?
We spent all afternoon just lying down feeling the sun beating down and cool sea breeze kissing our flesh, hearing the sounds of the surf and gulls and people, smelling the salt and sunscreen and water until we just couldn't take it anymore.  It was Brynn's idea to stop in a little beach town on our way out to get cold drinks for the ride home.  We ended up taking a stroll down the main drag, popping in consignment shops and boutiques for brief moments of air conditioned relief from the heat.  Heading back to the car, we stumbled upon Re-Juice-a-Nation, a cute little joint that offered fresh fruit juices and smoothies, including a bunch of vegan options.  After much deliberation (there were at least 30 drinks on the menu to choose from), I decided to go with the Bango - banana, mango juice, and mango chunks.  They served it up in a massive cup, I mean, if it had been filled with coke, Bloomberg would have cuffed me.  It was thick and cold and sweet, and as we drove out of town and away from the shore, the Bango was the perfect, healthy treat to end a beautiful beach day.

While I am so happy that karma gave me such a phenomenal day, I'm definitely not going to wait for the universe to do all the work.  I've never been what you'd call a beach bum, but I see myself taking the utmost advantage of my days off to lay a blanket in the sand and spend all day reclining in the sun.  And  now that I know where the good smoothies are, there's nothing stopping me.

Warning: When eating seaweed salad, the strands of seaweed have a tendency to get stuck in your teeth, especially the ones furthest back in your mouth.  Therefore, if said beach-picnic is a date-picnic, seaweed salad might not be the best option.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer: Then & Now

And another week flies by - that always happens with summer, the days all run into one another, with no thought for the date or day of the week.  I used to think that the cause of this phenomenon was due to the fact that my schedule was broken down, giving me nothing to judge time against.  But even with the firm regularity of a full-time job, I find myself unsure of what day it is, let alone what month.  I'm glad that the endless-summer feel of my childhood has not been lost in my slow, hesitant journey to adulthood.

With the arrival of the quintessential summer, what better way to celebrate than with a family barbecue?  Now, let's just say I kinda love my family.  Like a lot.  Not only are my immediate family and I freakishly close, but I'm lucky enough to have all of my extended family living within a 20 mile radius.  My aunts and uncles have always been some of my favorite people in the whole world, but as I've gotten older I've come to know them as more than just "aunts" and "uncles" and more as people, and they are really great people.  My cousins aren't half bad either - actually, our extreme closeness is starting to become a little bit of a problem as we have begun to morph into the same person, both physically and mentally.  This past weekend was one of said twin-cousin's 17th birthday (see right).  When she was younger she would have these big bashes in her backyard - the parents up on the patio chatting and sipping drinks that my Uncle "The Daiquiri Man" Jack mixed up, us kids tearing around the yard and occasionally across the patio, one after the other, during intense games of hide-and-seek tag.  We would take a break only long enough to grab a plate of food, sing Happy Birthday, and woof down some cake.  Losing the sunlight didn't stop us either, we actually looked forward to it, because it meant only one thing: Man Hunt - the only light being the moon and stars in the country sky (which made it both fun and frightening, especially when crouched in far edges of the yard near the thick line of trees in the back, the farthest point away from the patio and our parents).  And no party was complete without a half an hour search for some unfortunate guest's flip-flops in the endless darkness of the backyard.  My cousin hasn't had one of these parties in a few years, but this year, this was the year she brought them back.  While this time I spent the day on the patio with The Daiquiri Man, the tradition and nostalgia of the day was not lost, but I got to experience them from the other side.  I loved bonding with my aunts and uncles, and especially hearing stories of when they were younger, and laughing far, far too hard.  Another great thing about being a little bit older is being able to contribute - in the form of food of course.  Since hamburgers and hot dogs were already on the menu, I decided to whip up some Salmon BurgersDeviled Eggs, and Summer Green Bean Pasta Salad (recipe below).  This pasta salad, my mother's brainchild, has been a staple during the barbecue season for years, though I gave it a little update with the addition of chickpeas and a splash of ginger-mandarin dressing.  It felt really good to be able to bring something to the party, like giving back for all those great parties of summer's past.  Plus, I got compliments on both the burgers and the salad, which is always nice.

Summer Green Bean Pasta Salad
½ lb fresh green beans, ends removed and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 lb rotini pasta
1 small red onion, chopped
1 cup dried apricots, chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
¼ cup ginger-mandarin dressing

+ Fill a large pot ¾ of the way up with water, salt and bring to boil.  Add pasta and cook until done, take pot off heat.  Remove pasta with slotted spoon or small strainer.  Place in large bowl and set aside.
Put the water back onto boil, and add the green beans.  Cook until soft, but slightly crunchy.  Strain and add to pasta.
+ Add the onion, apricots, cranberries, chickpeas, and dressing, then stir until well combined.  Best served right out of the fridge.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Comfort Food Kind of Day

For the past two days I've been couch ridden with a terrible illness.  So awful that it has left me so physically deformed that small children run at the sight of me.  I have been plagued with conjunctivitis, or as it is commonly known, pink eye.  Honestly, I didn't know that grown-ups got pink eye; I thought it was confined to children who spend their days cooped up with thirty other sticky-handed, germ-ridden toddlers in the bacterial breeding grounds we call "day cares".  However, I got it and have spent the last 48 hours looking like a boxer that just lost the big match.  I would post a photo (yes, I do have a photo that my father took of me moments after I woke up, eyes swollen shut, as he giggled), but I'm going to spare you the agony - plus I wouldn't want you to lose your appetite, seeing as the recipes coming up are some of the best I've made yet.  Though to be fair, neither are original recipes, but I blame it on the fact that my face must have been scaring the Culinary Muses away.

So, I've been stuck inside for two days - mainly because I look like death - and I've acquired a bit of cabin fever.  I mean, there are only so many Lifetime movies you can watch before you lose all faith in humanity.  Today was a rainy and chilly day, which made me feel even more confined in my house.  I needed to do something.  So, I cleaned the kitchen - my go to chore and past-time.  After that I tried reading for a bit, but my muscles were twitching and my brain was drifting, and in less than ten minutes I was agitated and needed to get up and do something again.  Thankfully, I decided to check Facebook (what else do you do when there's nothing to do?) and saw that my mother had posted a link on my wall from the Martha Stewart website announcing that today is National Peanut Butter Cookie Day.  Now, while I'm not a huge peanut butter cookie fan, the idea of baking was too good to pass up.  Martha had a ridiculous amount of peanut butter cookie recipes, but, with the help of my brother, I wound up choosing the Peanut Butter Surprise cookies - I love the combination of chocolate and peanut butter, and I liked the idea of using peanut butter without having the whole cookie being overwhelmingly peanut buttery.  The batter was surprisingly light and fluffy - resembling a mousse more than a cookie batter.  This made getting them on the cookie sheets a tad messy, but gave them a fluffy, cake-like texture which paired well with the melty chips and creamy peanut butter filling.  I tell you that Stewart girl sure knows how to make a cookie.  She really should brand them or something.  I mean, she could be big if she plays her cards right. 
After the cookies were trayed and waiting in the fridge to be baked after dinner, I was semi-satisfied. For about an hour.  So I of course started planning dinner - another favorite past-time of mine.  Maybe it was being sick or maybe it was the cold, wet weather, but the day just screamed "comfort food."  After some digging online, I stumbled upon a vegan butternut squash mac&cheese recipe from OhSheGlows - her smoothie and overnight oat recipes are out of this world.  I've always been a little bit afraid of vegan cheese replacement recipes, mainly because I never thought that nuts, mustard, and nutritional yeast (whatever the hell that is) could pass as cheese, let alone taste good.  Turns out it does.  Oh, by the way, nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that's a complete protein, high in B-vitamins, and is naturally low in fat and sodium - plus the thing that gives the "cheese" that cheesy consistency.  I have to admit, I was astounded by the outcome.  It was creamy and salty and a little sweet, but wasn't as heavy as a traditional bechamel sauce.  My dad said that the "non-cheese tastes more like cheese than non-non-cheese."  I did make one major change to the original recipe, but only out of necessity.  There was no butternut squash at the grocery store.  I know, a travesty.  So, I used a little canned pumpkin instead, which gave the same feel as the squash without the time and energy of breaking down the squash and roasting it.  Instead of the seasonings called for, I used a blend called Table Mountain Seasonings (including California paprika, dill seed, rosemary, turmeric, Greek oregano, Mediterranean thyme, and about ten other herbs and spices) from Savory Spice Shop in Princeton.  I also stirred in a few halved grape tomatoes, because...well, because I'm obsessed with them and use them every opportunity I can.  And I finished it off with some panko bread crumbs to give it a little crunch.  The mac&cheese ended up being incredible.  I only had one plate, but I could have eaten an entire tray of that stuff all by myself.  This recipe is definitely going to be added to my regular repertoire and I can't wait to play around with different flavors, mix-ins, and toppings.
As I write this, the swelling in my eyes has gone down, making it seem now as if I've just had a very late night out and less of having been stung by a bee in both pupils.  I'm going to work tomorrow, which means that I shall be off the couch and out in the world.  My belly is full of warm non-cheesy macaroni goodness.  And in my hand is half of a gooey chocolate peanut butter cookie.  I'm getting the feeling that the next 48 hours are going to be definitively better than the last. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Cauliflower "Cheese" Spread: or Naan Pizza Revisited

There is something so beautiful about dining alfresco.   Authors Note: I realized that I use "beautiful" far too often, even though it always seems to be perfectly appropriate for what I'm attempting to describe.  From hence forth, I'll try harder to use other adjectives...

There is something so divine about dining alfresco.  The fresh air and sunlight make the flavors stronger, enhancing the subtleties, the sweet or tangy or peppery or smokey.  It makes you eat slower, appreciating and enjoying the simple act of sharing a meal, sipping on wine, and conversing.  Even if the background noise is the motorcycle traffic to New Hope rumbling by.  Time seems to slow, you relax, and instead of just eating, you are dining.  You, along with the meal, are transformed - its like a religious experience, or at least, its one of the closest things I've experienced to one.

After Tuesday's Gravity Hill shopping spree, I had a summer squash and that purple head of cauliflower sitting on my counter, just begging to be chopped and cooked and created into something.  As I was driving home from work - windows open, fresh cut grass and barbecue smells blowing through my hair - I knew that tonight was a backyard dinner night.  One of my favorite summer-night outdoor meals is naan pizzas (which happens to the subject of one of my first ever posts).  Naan is the perfect means of highlighting fresh summer produce - its thick enough to handle a pile of vegetables and other toppings, but airy enough that isn't heavy and dense like a traditional pizza dough can be.  Its the ultimate veggie vessel.  So in the end, the decision on what to do with my squash and cauliflower really was a no-brainer.

Normally when I make these pizzas, we use canned pizza sauce and no cheese - or rather, optional cheese for those who partake.  I usually use minimal sauce, mainly because it tends to be too sweet and, well, canned tasting (you know what I'm talking about....don't you?).  Tonight, however, I did two things differently: I skipped the canned sauce and roasted up some grape tomatoes (yes, people, the roasted tomatoes are back!), and I made a cauliflower "cheese" spread.  Now I know what you might be thinking, but trust me.  I've made a ricotta substitute for vegan lasagna before using blended up tofu and cauliflower before, but decided to just use the cauliflower this time and see what happened.  It ended up working pretty well, although I wouldn't necessarily call it a pizza cheese substitute - it had the consistency of hummus, but added the saltiness and creaminess that you'd normally get from cheese.  Topped with roasted tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms with garlic and onions, and fresh basil, and eaten alfresco with a big glass of red wine - divine.  While I do think that the recipe needs a little tweaking, its definitely going to become a staple on my naan pizzas from now on.
Cauliflower "Cheese" Spread
1 head cauliflower florets, chopped
olive oil
non-dairy milk
salt and pepper

+ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Place cauliflower florets in a medium baking dish.  Drizzle with olive oil and lightly salt and pepper.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until cauliflower is soft.
+ Place roasted cauliflower in a food processor.  Add a splash of olive oil.  Blend, then slowly add milk until desired consistency is reached.  Season to taste.  To serve, spread on naan as a base, then add sauce and toppings.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Garlic Scape Pesto

I'm a sucker for pretty things.  Most of the time its home-ware: plates, napkins, pots and pans, table sets, spatulas, hutches, art work, chests, table cloths, platters, baskets.  I can't go antiquing without mentally furnishing my imaginary home.  And I have stopped myself from going into any kitchen-ware stores at all.  It's just not good.  But my obsession is not just limited to things - it's also a big problem when it comes to food.  If it looks pretty or interesting, I need it.  Sometimes I won't even know what it is or what to do with it, but its just too beautiful to pass by.  This proves to be very troublesome at the farmer's market.  Take for example, yesterday...

I made a quick stop at Gravity Hill Farms to get some basil  for dinner and ended up coming home with a giant bag of gorgeous produce.  The first thing that caught my eye were these beautiful green and yellow stripped summer squash.  They stood out vibrantly against the wicker basket they were nestled in.  I grabbed three.  Turning around in the tiny market, the next thing I saw were heads of cauliflower - bright white with the faintest hint of purple around the edges and underneath.  Then I saw purple-bottomed scallions that I thought how perfectly they would compliment the cauliflower and then I realized that my arms were overflowing with produce, except the basil I had come there for.  And an ever bigger struggle came with the picking the basil.  Gravity Hill offers three - yes, three - types of basil: Italian, Thai, and Lemon.  The Italian is the classic wide leaf basil that most grocery stores sell.  The Thai basil has a purple-ish stem with smaller leaves, and is sweet and a little spicy (sometimes said to have a cinnamon-like flavor).  The lemon basil also has small, delicate leaves, but smells like, well, lemons and basil.  It has this fresh, bright flavor with a more subtle basil flavor lurking in the background.  While I would have loved the Thai basil to go with the purple color scheme I had going, my mom isn't a big fan of basil, so I got the Lemon since its less-basily, and the citrus would make the pesto light and springy.  After I got the basil, I strode right over to the register - if I let my gaze wander, I would have come home with a whole vegetable garden.  Just leaving with the one bag was practicing ridiculously good self-control, if I don't say so myself.
When I got home I was met with yet another dilemma - what do I make for dinner?  The whole point of picking up basil was because I planned on making a garlic scape pesto, but with the addition of the summer squash and purple cauliflower, my brain was whirling with possibilities.  I immediately entailed the help of my mother, who is a master at cultivating and focusing my thoughts (both culinary and life-wise).  I decided to keep with the original plan of pesto with the addition of scallions to the base.  I originally wanted to serve it over polenta or quinoa, but my mom was really in the mood for pasta, but I was unwilling to give up my vision, so we compromised with pastina.  I also decided to saute up some seafood medley we had in the freezer with the summer squash and scallions.  It ended up not being the dish that was in my head, but it was delicious - light and fresh, but hearty and filling.  And hey, I found a way to use almost all of my impulse buys!  I just need to figure out how to highlight that cauliflower in tomorrow night's dinner...

Garlic Scape Pesto
10 garlic scapes
3 large scallions
2 cups loosely packed basil
¼ cup olive oil

+ Place scapes, scallions, and basil in a food processor.  Blend, then slowly drizzle olive oil into the mixture as it continues to blend until the desired texture is reached.  Season to taste.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Free Morning & Farm Fresh Eggs

Today marks my first day off in weeks that isn't jam-packed with things to do.  Most people might take this time to sleep in or...sleep in.  But I am not like most people.  I woke up early in order to get to the farmer's market right when it opened.  After a quick stop off at Rojos' Roastery for a cappuccino - served with a small dark chocolate chip on the spoon, its the best one in the area -  we headed up River Road to my favorite, the Stockton Market.

The market has changed fairly drastically over the years, and even more so in the month since I last visited.  I almost had a heart attack when I realized that there was a new stand where my chocolatier used to be, however, after frantically looking around for a few panicked moments, I found that she had moved to a larger space near the front of the market.  She even had some new truffles to sample, including a Macallan 12 year old Scotch-filled milk chocolate bite that was flavorful, but not overwhelming.  There were quite a few new faces in the market including White Mule Farms who's claim-to-fame is Spodee, a Depression era hooch made from wine, herbs, spices, and moonshine.  They weren't able to offer any samples of the "wine with a kick" at the market, but the innovative vendors created a Spondee jam that they were able to offer spoonfuls of and OhMyGod it was out of this world (as of next week, the liquor store next-door to the market will be selling the stuff, so I'll be picking up a few bottles and letting you all know how it is).
I, of course, made a stop at the Gravity Hill stand and picked up a head of lettuce - basically because it was too beautiful not to - and some garlic scapes.  Garlic scapes, or green garlic, is immature garlic and resembles a scallion.  I was introduced to them last summer by the farmers at Gravity Hill and the New York Times Dining & Wine Section just did a piece on the curly little beauties, so I thought it was necessary to get them.
Next stop was Crossroads Bake Shop for pastries, because, let's be real, no Sunday morning is complete without pastries.  We got the standby chocolate croissant, then sprang for a strawberry one, a cinnamon roll, and a morning roll - my personal favorite.  It like a sticky bun, but topped with this butter and honey glaze instead of icing.  Absolutely delightful with a cup of coffee or tall glass of O.J.

Then, the find of the morning, were the eggs at the Tullamore Farm stand.  The vendor was so excited to tell us about the farm as she cleaned the eggs.  The farm raises grass fed cows and chickens.  The chickens are moved throughout the pastures in mobile units following the cows, eating grass and grubs.  Their diet also contains a locally grown grain mix that includes flax seed and kelp.  The vendor told us how bright and vibrant the yolks were (apparently they make lemon bars a beautiful shade of yellow), but warned us that they weren't good hard boiled eggs because of their difficulty to peel - which, if you remember from my Deviled Egg post, means that they are fresh, and according to my new friend, the eggs we bought were laid that morning and still warm.  Last year I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which made me want to be a farmer and raise chickens.  Pollan goes directly to the source to find out where our food comes from, while visiting, working on farms, and eating the food produced there in attempts to connect with what we eat - there's an incredible passage where he describes slaughtering a chicken, something I think all meat-eaters should do in their lifetime in order to understand how Chicken Little becomes those fleshy pieces of meat wrapped in plastic in the supermarket.  The way the vendor described Tullamore reminded me so much of one of the farms Pollan visited - from the grass fed animals to the kelp added to their diet to the outstanding color of the yolks.  That's what I was most excited about, the yolks.  I remember Pollan saying how in awe he was of something as simple as an egg, how the color was unlike any he's seen, and how it tasted so much richer than supermarket eggs.  And I wanted to see it for myself.  Therefor, we came home from the market and made eggs for breakfast.  Just two fried eggs - a little pepper, a splash of hot sauce, simple to highlight the egg.  And, God, were they good eggs, creamy and soft and flavorful.  And those yolks!  You really can't understand the difference a natural lifestyle and diet makes on an animal until you've seen and tasted grass fed chicken eggs.
Sitting at the table in my backyard, reading the Sunday Review, mason jar full of orange juice, remnants of orange-yellow yolk on my plate, I realized how beautiful the simple things are - a free morning and fresh eggs.  And it made me smile...though it could have been the fact that there was a morning bun waiting for me on the kitchen counter.